Russia Plays Hardball with Ukraine

September 08, 1993

Poor Ukraine. More than other former Soviet republics, that southern state bordering on Poland, Hungary and Romania seemed to be a candidate for a successful independence. It had a manageable size, fertile soil, a sound industrial base.

Yet in the past two years Ukraine has skidded from uncertainty to disaster.

Unlike Russia, Ukraine has hardly started economic reforms. Privatization is lagging. Its leadership is in hopeless disarray. Its ersatz money is increasingly worthless: In August, one dollar was worth 6,000 "coupons"; a month later it fetched 19,000. As hyper-inflation has raged, Ukraine's industrial production has nose-dived. The country is buried in debt. And winter is coming. . . .

Desperate times call for desperate actions. Last week, Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk swallowed his pride and promised to sell half the contested 300-vessel Black Sea fleet -- and its nuclear warheads -- to Russia for forgiveness of a $2.5 billion debt. "We had to act on the basis of realism," Mr. Kravchuk said. "Suppose we had slammed the door and left; the gas would have been turned off and there would have been nothing left to do. . . I do not think that if we sell off some of our weapons, it means the collapse of the state or its reforms."

That's not how many Ukrainians see it, though. "This is tantamount to high treason," declared Vyacheslav Chornovil, head of the nationalist opposition party Rukh. Although Mr. Kravchuk now is backpedaling and claims that he concluded no final pact with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, it is clear that Moscow will do everything to force Ukraine to honor the deal. Russians have always been known for their ability to play hardball.

If they have to stop deliveries of oil, natural gas and vital raw materials, they will do so with gusto. The more he bullies Ukrainians, the more popular Mr. Yeltsin is likely to be among his Russians. And few symbols are as powerful as Russia gaining control of the Black Sea fleet -- whose fate has been a constant source of friction between Moscow and Kiev for the past two years.

From America's standpoint, the sale would achieve the desirable goal of eliminating part of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal. This is the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that the deal falls through and leads to heightened ethnic tensions in Russia as well as Ukraine. Such an outcome would sow the seeds of future confrontations.

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